All of these stories have a main character with some form of mental illness. It could be depression, long term mental illness, or a mental strain that suddenly causes insanity.
Sometimes the character’s perceptions are presented to us, other times we’re shown the effects of their problem on themselves and others.
Stories with characters who live with some psychological barrier have their own section at the bottom of the page. They might be getting psychotherapy or dealing with it on their own.
These stories might interest an avid reader, or might be suitable short stories for students.
Harvey’s Dream | Stephen King
An aging man tells his wife about the vivid dream he had last night.
Symbols and Signs | Vladimir Nabokov
An elderly couple intends to visit their son in a mental institution, but because of a recent suicide attempt, they are not allowed to see him. The husband decides to remove the son from the facility.
Flowers for Algernon | Daniel Keyes
A mentally retarded man undergoes a procedure to vastly increase his intelligence. He keeps a diary of his progress and personal interactions.
The Yellow Wallpaper | Charlotte Perkins Gilman
A woman is confined to the upstairs bedroom of a summer home by her doctor husband. She has “nervous depression” and a “hysterical tendency”. The confinement has an added negative effect on her mental health, which she documents in her journal.
Gimpel the Fool | Isaac Bashevis Singer
Gimpel, the narrator, is an adult orphan who gets turned over to the baker as an assistant. He admits that he’s “easy to take in”, and the villagers all play him for a fool. When he talks about leaving, the villagers try to convince him to marry Elka, a prostitute.
Alicia | Gabrielle Roy
A young girl tells the story of her older sister Alicia’s mental illness. They’re close but Alicia is very withdrawn.
The Fall of the House of Usher | Edgar Allan Poe
The narrator visits his friend Roderick who, along with his sister, is suffering from an unusual illness. Roderick’s sister dies, so the narrator helps him entomb her in the house before a permanent burial is arranged.
Average Waves in Unprotected Waters | Anne Tyler
Bet Blevins is bringing her nine-year-old, mentally handicapped son, Arnold, to an institution.
The Diary of a Madman | Nikolai Gogol
A middle-aged government clerk keeps a diary that includes the times he is marginalized by others, with his fanciful explanations for what’s really happening. His perceptions become increasingly outrageous as he loses grip on reality.
Greatness Strikes Where It Pleases | Lars Gustafsson
A mentally retarded boy is sent to an institution at age seven. He misses his old life on a farm, but tries to adjust to his new routine.
The Scarlet Ibis | James Hurst
The narrator, Brother, reminisces about the time a rare bird landed in his family’s garden, and about his brother, Doodle, who was physically disabled and mentally challenged.
Silver Water | Amy Bloom
Violet tells the story of her sister Rose who suffers from schizophrenia and had her first psychotic break at fifteen. Rose is taken to many therapists with mixed results. When she goes to a Dr. Thorne, she begins to make some progress.
Night | Tatyana Tolstaya
Mamochka is eighty-years-old and looks after her middle-aged retarded son, Alexie. She gets him through his daily routine, sets up his work space, and tries to guide his interactions with others.
The Black Cat | Edgar Allan Poe
The narrator, a condemned man, relates how he came to blind and, later, kill a cat due to his loss of control from drinking. A second cat eventually comes into his home, causing a further escalation of hostilities.
Silent Snow, Secret Snow | Conrad Aiken
Paul, twelve-years-old, becomes distracted by something that happened a few days before. While home, he heard the postman’s footsteps but they were muffled; Paul thought they were muffled by snow. When he looked out the window, there was no snow. He can’t stop thinking about this “secret snow”, increasing his alienation from the world.
The Tell-Tale Heart | Edgar Allan Poe
An unnamed narrator describes how he killed a man; he tries to convince his listener of his sanity and wisdom. He believed his boarder, an old man, watched him with an “Evil Eye.”
The Key | Isaac Bashevis Singer
Bessie Popkin prepares to go out for some food shopping. She gets into her clothes, does her hair, and makes sure her neighbors don’t break in and steal her things. She has paranoid complaints about many people she has come in contact with.
The Lost Phoebe | Theodore Dreiser
Henry and Phoebe are an aging couple who live on a farm. They only have each other; when Phoebe dies, it has a bad effect on Henry’s mental state.
Jumper Down | Don Shea
Henry is a paramedic who is considered the “jumper up” expert—he’s great at talking people down when they’re on a bridge or ledge.
Midair | Frank Conroy
Sean Kennedy is six-years-old when his absent father shows up to take him home from school. No one has a key so they climb in thru the fire escape. His father is manic. Eventually, some staff arrive from an asylum to get Mr. Kennedy. The narrative jumps ahead to future incidents in Sean’s life.
Brothers | Sherwood Anderson
The narrator lives at his country house, twenty miles from Chicago. There is an old man in the area that the people call insane. When the old man hears a news story he always claims to be related to the person in question. The Chicago papers are reporting that a man murdered his wife for no apparent reason.
Of This Time, Of That Place | Lionel Trilling
Joseph Howe is an English instructor at Dwight College. One of his students, Ferdinand Tertan, is intelligent but mentally erratic. Howe, who is also a poet, is attacked in a literary journal as an irresponsible writer.
Child’s Play | Alice Munro
Marlene, the adult narrator, tells the story of her time at camp with her friend Charlene when they were about ten-years-old. While sharing information with each other, Marlene tells her about Verna, a girl two or three years older who moved in next to her. Verna was different; she was in a special class at school. Marlene didn’t like her. Some unstated tragedy had occurred in her childhood.
The Man Who Did Not Smile | Yasunari Kawabata
The author of a screenplay has been watching the filming of his movie for a week. He is inspired to rewrite the last scene, having smiling masks appear all over the screen. The movie is set in a mental hospital, so he thinks he must add a happy ending.
Read “The Man Who Did Not Smile” (Pg 143)
Beyond the Bayou | Kate Chopin
An African-American woman, La Folle, was frightened “out of her senses” as a child. As a result, she won’t cross an imaginary line in her area; she has never been beyond the bayou.
Big Bertha Stories | Bobbie Ann Mason
Donald comes home, occasionally and unannounced, to see his family. He seemed to adjust after the Vietnam War, but then he lost his job and deteriorated. He tells his son, Rodney, tall tales of Big Bertha, a huge strip-mining machine. The stories start out light but always turn dark.
Colloquy | Shirley Jackson
Mrs. Arnold goes to a doctor and asks how to tell if someone is crazy. She then relates a story of her husband getting upset when he couldn’t get his daily paper.
Georgy Porgy | Roald Dahl
A celibate and repressed vicar rebuffs the advances of the many spinsters in his parish.
Read “Georgy Porgy” (PDF Pg 66)
The Good Doctor | Adam Haslett
A psychiatrist makes a long drive to see a patient who’s been getting her prescriptions renewed by phone. He wants to engage her in some talk therapy and better understand her situation.
The Sin Eater | Margaret Atwood
The narrator talks about her therapist, Joseph. He told her about a Wales tradition where a person known as a Sin Eater would be called to eat a meal over a dead body. This would transfer the dead person’s sins to the eater, thus clearing the person’s way to heaven. When Joseph has an accident, the narrator find out about his life from his ex-wives and other patients.
Christmas Not Just Once a Year | Heinrich Boll
Shortly after WW I, a German family is showing “symptoms of disintegration”. In 1947, when the family’s Christmas tree was being taken down, it fell over, causing Aunt Milla to scream for almost a week. Uncle Franz offers a solution to the problem that causes issues of its own.
Eupompus Gave Splendour to Art by Numbers | Aldous Huxley
Emberlin is an academic, an encyclopedia of irrelevant information. While researching an obscure quotation, he becomes fixated on numbers and counting to the exclusion of everything else.
Read here (Pg 192)
The Second Tree from the Corner | E. B. White
Mr. Trexler regularly visits a psychiatrist because of dizziness, despondency, and tension among other things.
Pumpkins | Francine Prose
A truck full of pumpkins collides with a car, killing the female driver. The report has an effect on several people in the small town.
I will try to add more stories about depression, mental illness or insanity that could be helpful for teaching reading and reading comprehension to middle or high school students. Eventually, I hope these pages will become a teaching resource.